Buddhist Encounters and Identities Across East Asia

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Ann Heirman, Carmen Meinert, Christoph Anderl
Dynamics in the History of Religion
  • Boston, MA: 
    , May
     436 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For Buddhist Encounters and Identities Across East Asia, the title signals its central contention: that premodern East Asian Buddhism is best understood as having developed in local cultural contexts that were shaped by trans-regional networks of commercial and religious exchange. The authors of the compiled works seek to examine how human, material, and idealized encounters along these networks helped engender a wide variety of unique, culturally inflected Buddhist identities. The book is comprised of an introduction and twelve chapters divided equally into two parts, “Translocal Networks” and “Negotiating and Constructing Identities,” which adopt global and local perspectives on how Buddhist cultures developed across boundaries. The individual chapters adhere to this bifurcation somewhat loosely, but all focus in some way on the translocal and transcultural dimensions of localized Buddhist traditions.

Claudine Bautze-Picron begins with an art historical analysis of wall painting iconography at the Burmese site of Bagan, arguing that it demonstrates a progression of influence from Indian to Chinese. Rob Linrothe then seeks to identify and contextualize a set of Ming (1368-1644) Chinese embroideries that found their way to the Korzok monastery in Ladakh, Tibet. The next chapter, by Megan Bryson, shifts attention to the southwest Chinese kingdoms of Nanzhao (649-903) and Dali (937-1253), where real and imagined Buddhist transmission networks prioritized Chinese and Indian connections. Next, Steven Trenson’s essay on the medieval Shingon deity combination of Fudō and Aizen contends that it was not a Japanese invention but resulted from complex trade networks with China. Bryan Levman follows with a phonological study of transliterated dhāraṇīs in Kumārajīva’s (344-413) Chinese rendition of the Lotus Sutra, which support the contention that Kumārajīva’s source text was earlier and more Prakritic than its surviving Sanskrit witnesses. The final chapter of part 1 is Kaiqi Hua’s account of Song Chinese emperor Zhao Xian (1271-1323), whose episodes of exile under the Yuan (1271-1368) illustrate how Mongol rulers cultivated networks of Buddhist exchange across Tibet, northern and southern China, and Korea.

Part 2 explores the ways in which local Buddhist authors defined their own traditions in juxtaposition with other, foreign Buddhist cultures. Beginning with Max Deeg’s analysis of poems in medieval Chinese Buddhist travelogues, we see how Chinese pilgrims to India expressed the tensions of their “double identity” as culturally Chinese but religiously Indian (227-28). The articles by Sem Vermeersch and Henrik H. Sørensen both deal with medieval Sino-Korean accounts of Korean Buddhist travelers in China. The former focuses on the “Chinese Buddhist imaginaire” of visiting Korean monks (255); the latter on Korean Sŏn conceptions of religious transmission and authority. Pei-ying Lin then examines Japanese legends of Prince Shōtoku (574-622) as the reincarnation of Chinese patriarch Nanyue Huisi (515-577), arguing that these legends mimicked earlier Chinese attempts to garner legitimacy through connections to India. Bart Dessein then discusses three layers of early Indian Buddhist identity: as followers of the Buddha’s word (sutra), members of ordination lineages (vinaya), and advocates of doctrinal principles (abhidharma). Ann Heirman concludes the book by positing an “advancing purity threshold” in medieval Chinese adaptations of Indian vinaya regulations dealing with practices of daily bodily care in Buddhist monastic environments (369).

The collected works in Buddhist Encounters and Identities Across East Asia are well written and researched. Each makes its case compellingly, with vivid documentation of and insight into Asian Buddhist sources that demonstrate influence from foreign traditions and preoccupation with religious and cultural boundaries in a pan-Asian Buddhist world. However, in so doing, the articles devote less attention to the broader analytical frameworks of trans-regional network exchange and local reception and production that structure the book. Bryson elaborates a dichotomy of “documented” and “represented” networks of Buddhist transmission; that is, networks verified by modern scholars versus those embellished by premodern Buddhists (82). Vermeersch proposes a “theory of ‘interface’” as accounting for “accurate” and “imaginary” representations of Buddhist “others” (254-55). Trenson attempts to distinguish “translocal historical human networks” from “local conceptual networks” (111). And the introduction by Tansen Sen establishes a framing dichotomy of global transmission versus local innovation, advancing a circular hermeneutic that oscillates between trans-regional exchange networks and more insular constructions of “distinct identities rooted in unique cultural practices” (2).

But the utility and conceptual clarity of these bifurcations require further consideration. First, recent studies of the religious imaginaire and didactic invention in Buddhist literature, particularly hagiography, have productively deconstructed the modern scholarly effort to understand premodern “myth” as opposed to “history” (see Robert Ford Campany, Signs from the Unseen Realm: Buddhist Miracle Tales from Early Medieval China, University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012). That is, imaginaire is not the same as imagination; premodern religious writings were not “fictive” in a modern sense. Their own authors and audiences saw them as grounded in realities this notion of myth obscures, especially when juxtaposed with the analyst’s ostensibly objective history. How might those who maintain this dichotomy engage such debates?

Second, the main framing dyads of global-local and transmission-innovation mask important shifts in analytic perspective that threaten to breach this hermeneutic circle. Much of the volume advances a god’s-eye perspective that gazes across continents and millennia to identify broad patterns of cultural influence that were unrecognizable to agents on the ground. However, in the book’s twin focus on local identity construction, it also attempts to examine how premodern Buddhists understood their own identities in relation to their cultural “others.” The question is, are these macro and micro perspectives commensurate? To what extent is the pan-Asian historical network approach reflective of premodern Asian Buddhist worldviews? Can scholars oscillate between broad spatiotemporal developments and the perspectives of local agents without losing some purchase on the latter, which were wholly innocent of the former? Either way, these larger theoretical questions in no way diminish the fine quality of each individual contribution to this volume. Overall, itcompellingly illustrates how local Buddhist beliefs, practices, and (material) cultures developed through networks of translocal exchange.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stuart H. Young is Associate Professor of East Asian Religions at Bucknell University.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ann Heirman is Professor of Buddhist Studies and Classical Chinese. She has published extensively on Chinese Buddhist monasticism and the development of disciplinary rules, including Rules for Nuns according to the Dharmaguptakavinaya (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2002).

Carmen Meinert is Professor of Central Asian Religions. Her research interest focuses on the transfer of Buddhism in Central Asia, Tibet and China. Her latest publication is Transfer of Buddhism Across Central Asian Networks (7th to 13th Centuries) (Brill 2016).

Christoph Anderl is Professor of Buddhist Studies and Chinese Linguistics, with an emphasis on the vernacular language of Medieval China and Chan Buddhist material among the Dunhuang manuscripts.


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